Born as Seetaa Subramaniam in Los Angeles, California, to violinist L. Subramaniam and vocalist Vijayashree (Viji) Subramaniam, Bindu always had music in her blood. Her father married the famous Bollywood playback singer Kavita Krishnamurti. Part of the Stanford Seed Transformation Program (cohort of 2020), Bindu has a master’s degree in law from London University, a master’s certificate in songwriting and music business from Berklee College of Music, a Montessori diploma and an MPhil, a PhD in Music Education.
1. You have been practicing and have mastered the art of classical music for a while now and have been an acclaimed artist. You wrote your first song when you were a little child. How did you find your calling?
I think it would take me many lifetimes to master anything. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many great teachers who inspired a love of learning in me. I started learning music from my mother. My grandfather, Professor V Lakshminarayana was a Carnatic musician. I started learning Carnatic music as a child – singing, and then the violin. All of us – my siblings and I – learnt the violin. My parents were keen that we play the piano. So, we all had classical piano lessons. At some point, there were Western violin lessons. I was really interested in Western singing, so I had Western voice lessons.
I wrote my first song at the age of seven, which if I am to be honest was heavily “inspired” by Michael Jackson. That was my childhood! I was always very drawn to pop music. I was singing and playing throughout, and in my 20s I decided that I wanted to study pop music, so I did Berklee courses. Essentially, I learnt a lot of Carnatic music plus Western classical and contemporary music.
2. What were the hurdles initially? How did you overcome them?
I think the biggest hurdle for me was also my greatest strength – and that’s coming from a family of legends. When you do, it’s hard for people to see you as anything other than a child of greats. You’re always compared to them. It was also very challenging for me to be true to my own voice and artistic path because I think audiences expected me to do exactly what my parents were doing. I think it took a long time for me to have faith in myself and the direction of music and my career that I wanted to and find an audience that resonated with the authentic me.
3. What have been the highpoints of your musical journey so far?
One of the greatest moments of my life was being on stage with Al Jarreau, George Duke and Stanley Clarke, performing with my father Dr. L. Subramaniam. It was surreal. My heart felt so full, and it was so powerful to see how welcoming and supportive these artists were.
Another high point for me has been performing with orchestras. There’s something so unique about singing with 60-70 musicians supporting you. It’s so precise and timed, and yet there is space for magic and individuality.
As a songwriter, I’ve been fortunate to win awards, and also to work with and mentor young songwriters. That brings me joy every day.
Performing as part of two bands – SubraMania (with my brother Ambi) and the Thayir Sadam Project (with Ambi, Mahesh Raghvan and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan) has always been a safe and wonderful space for experimentation and pushing boundaries.
Of late, I’ve really enjoyed making mood/acoustic covers of songs that I love and are meaningful. I like engaging with music that has been created by others, and making it my own. I’ve been releasing them on my youtube channel and instagram page, and engaging with listeners around the world has been wonderful.
4. You have stuck to your roots and yet made your music relatable to the modern world and have always been performing with so much poise and grace. How do you keep innovating in your creative field?
I think the most important thing in a creative field is to be authentic and open minded. Authenticity allows you to create music that resonates with people at a very deep level, and open mindedness allows for creative explorations and collaborations that would otherwise not be possible!
5. How do you ensure that your art resonates with today’s lifestyle and mood?
One thing I learned is that if I try to make music with only the audience in mind, it won’t work. If I make music that is meaningful to me and what I’m going through, there is always somehow an audience that it will resonate with. It may seem counter intuitive, but the more personal something is, the more universal it is as well.
6. How has the time been in the last two years during the pandemic times? How did you evolve in your creative space while being stuck?
I think it’s been different at different points in the last two years. When lockdown first hit, it was a creative challenge and audiences were in the mood to see how we could creatively experiment with a virtual-only medium. We had a lot of fun with that – we held online request sessions on Instagram and went live at least once a week where we chatted about our lives with the audience.
Since then, things took a more serious turn, and we kept going in and out of lockdown. When cases were rising and mental health was at an all-time low, we held a Music for Joy program using the virtual space. We held free sessions with companies, where we taught popular songs and conducted musical activities to boost everyone’s emotional well-being. It was a fulfilling outcome, in the midst of a very tough time for the country as a whole.
Today, as we’re slowly transitioning into a hybrid form of working and learning, we’re trying to understand the best way in which we can integrate music. Our “new normal” now is to go with the flow and use the arts to make life a little easier, all while continuing to navigate uncertainty every step of the way. It isn’t easy, and we don’t have all the answers, but it’s a challenge that our entire team of educators, artists, and administrators have risen to and try to solve every day.
7. Some of the places across the world and in India where you have performed at and which ones have been your favourite?
There are many venues which hold a special place in my heart among them, the Jaipur Lit Fest, The Royal Opera House Muscat, the open-air festival at Hampi, intimate clubs like BFlat. I love the variety that different spaces, audiences and venues bring. I’ve performed in dozens of countries around the world – from Iceland and Russia to Japan and Belgium, and every audience has been something unique and special.
8. Would you like to share any interesting incidents that have taken place during your performances? Any collaborations with other popular personalities in your space?
Every moment with my bands is exciting. Every time we are on stage, we never quite know what to expect. The private jokes we share always have audiences tell us that it looks like we have way too much fun on stage.
9. Please share some of the awards, accolades or recognitions you have won?
My team and I have enjoyed every step of this journey with music, and it has been an honour to have received these awards:
Among BusinessWorld’s 40 under 40
Among BusinessWorld’s prominent businesswomen
Female CEO of the Year by the Women Who Lead National Awards Committee 2021
Named among GQ magazine’s 25 most influential young Indians
Radio City awards in the Best Folk Fusion category
In 2012, I was listed as one of Verve magazine’s gen-next achievers
My first solo album, Surrender, was nominated for a GiMA in the category of Best Pop/Rock Album.
I was part of my father Dr. L. Subramaniam’s ensemble that won a GiMA (Global Indian Music Academy Award) for Best Fusion Album for the album Live in Leipzig
10. Would you like to tell us more about your other passions that people don’t know of?
I’m sure anyone who follows me on social media knows this, but I have five cats who wake me up at the crack of dawn for breakfast. The last two years have been much easier, thanks to their company.
I also find it soothing to clean and organise different corners of my house. On a typical rest day, I’m cleaning and restocking my pantry, or looking for the best way to arrange and display my flowers. I consider myself a lifelong learner and try to spend as much time as I can learning something new – whether it’s audio editing or social media design, finance or marketing.
11. Something about the relationship with your parents? You have also collaborated with your dad, violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam, on a number of releases. Tell us more about that.
My relationship with my parents has always been a source of strength and something that motivates me at the deepest and highest levels. I always want to do something that makes them proud but then I always have moments where I feel like I need to establish my own identity. So from my youngest years I’ve been inspired and motivated by seeing how my father Dr. L Subramaniam works and working with him in so many capacities – whether it’s on the music business and production or even performing – has been absolutely something that has made me into what I am today. When I am able to collaborate with him musically (for example, on the song When It’s Dark, which we released last year), it has started transformed over the years – from being scared in the corner and singing what he told me to, to being in a space where I feel like we are collaborating and contributing. Working together on When It’s Dark has been a magical experience, to say the least.
12. Please also share something about the collaboration with your brother Ambi Subramaniam, with whom you started a contemporary world music band, SubraMania and also created The Thayir Sadam Project.
Ambi started off as my younger brother and sort of became my twin somewhere along the way. I joke that we are just short of being co-dependent; we work together at SaPa, we work together at the Thayir Sadam project, and we work together with SubraMania.
SubraMania was really the first space that we decided to create and where we collaborated together. Until then, Ambi focused on Western classical, Indian classical, and Carnatic music and the violin primarily and I had gravitated more towards the western contemporary pop space. We decided to create SubraMania as a voice for contemporary world music where we could bring in not only Indian and western contemporary elements but global music – whether it’s Latin rhythms or African themes or anything that was exciting and inspiring to us. So with SubraMania, we’ve used classical Indian ragas and Talas along with western pop structures and we really try to push the boundaries of what contemporary world music could be. Nothing has been too random to find its way in to get inspiration, so SubraMania is always something that will be very close to my heart.
When we started the Thayir Sadam Project, it was initially a one-off collaboration with the iPad and Mahesh Raghvan. We thought what he was doing was very interesting, our friend Ashanti Omkar from the BBC put us in touch, and we decided to do a one-off collaboration. But when we met Mahesh, it was like we had met a long-lost brother and that’s how the Thayir Sadam Project was born. Later we realized we really needed one more person, and invited Akshay to join the family. It was really fun for us to be making this authentic music in the space.
What we did was brought in different people’s skills – so there is more electronica, and Akshay brings amazing rhythmic sense and patterns into it. The four of us in the Thayir Sadam project have done a number of releases on our own too. Some of the songs that are really meaningful to me are “At the Door “and “Million Dreams” but we’ve also done some really amazing collaborations with people like Aruna Sairam Ji where we did “Loka Samastha” and Ranjani- Gayathri where we did “Crazy Little Thing called Chakravakam.” I think, with the Thayir Sadam Project, we have an opportunity to keep pushing the boundaries of what Indian classical music and contemporary can be.
13. Do tell us about SaPa and the things you do as part of SaPa?
SaPa is like my baby and one of the primary reasons I get out of bed every day – to change the face of music education in India and hopefully around the world. We work a lot with methodology, teacher training, creating learning materials, inspiring the next generation to be musicians, and help non-musicians learn how to love music. I think music needs to be a meaningful part of everybody’s life, because it helps you understand yourself better, and deal with the world around you better. Everything is just more positive and vibrant when art is involved.
One of the two main things we do at SaPa is the “SaPa in Schools” program, where we work with schools to make music a meaningful part of the school curriculum. We are fortunate to work with 30,000 children a year across a hundred schools and so many wonderful young musicians are teachers with us. In this program, many of them come from engineering, legal and medical backgrounds but they have chosen to pursue their passions in music and that brings me great joy, because people should be able to do what they are passionate about.
On the other side, we have SaPa centres and our online learning platform, where we work with people from the age of 1 ½ all the way into adulthood. We are looking at not only creating the next generation of musicians but helping people experience music for joy. Our teaching methods are interdisciplinary – how do you bring together Carnatic violin and western songwriting? Or the Cajon and the mridangam? I think SaPa is slowly but surely becoming a global voice on the scene of music and music education, and it’s something that is very powerful and impactful. Whether it’s our outreach work with government schools in villages, or working with people from privileged backgrounds to see how they can develop their creative and artistic voices, I think everything that we do is wonderful.
14. Also tell us about your relationship with your mom Kavita Krishnamurti and how it has grown over the years?
My mom is an incredible inspiration – not only because of her skill set and ability to sing in so many different languages but her work ethic. What I find most inspiring about her is, even after conquering the world for the last few decades, she still takes on the role of a student and she’s still trying to find new musical avenues.
She still practices every day – I think that by seeing her, I have learned more about what it means to be a vocalist than by listening to hundreds of recordings. She’s always been extremely supportive of me as an individual, whether it is the music that I choose to pursue or the many degrees that I’ve got, and she’s always been cheering for me – whether it is for graduating from the Stanford Seed program or when I got my Ph.D. or when I release new songs. She also makes sure that I am doing better, and I think that’s so important. She doesn’t sugarcoat things when needed, which is wonderful and I am so glad that I have parents who are so inspirational.
15. How did things change after your marriage with Sanjeev Nayak? Now your daughter is also practicing music? How do you ensure she goes in the right direction?
So the funniest thing about Sanjeev is that he always thought he could impress a girl with his violin skills. Until he met me! Then he wished that he played another instrument like the mandolin. The joke is that when Sanjeev and i started seeing each other and we decided to get married, it was like, “oh no do we need another violinist in the house?” But jokes aside, I think what Sanjeev brings in terms of his musicianship and his personality and something that compliments and the family greatly, is that he’s the most non-reactive person I’ve ever met. Musically, I love the energy of his band Swarathma and I love that folk rock feeling, and the way that he has used the violin – which is an instrument we are so familiar with – in such new and interesting ways.
Our daughter Mahati, who is now 11, is also sort of a creative person in her own right. She loves gymnastics, acting, songwriting. She doesn’t just sing her own songs, but also accompanies herself on the violin and the piano. Sometimes I also see her with a guitar and ukulele! It’s great that she and many other kids are creating their own unique pathways by building multiple skill sets together at the same time.
I don’t think it’s my decision to figure out what direction that she should eventually go in going forward. Sanjeev and I just want to make sure that we give her all the opportunities to learn whatever she wants to learn, and help her develop a strong work ethic. Unless you are working hard at everything that you are passionate about, it will be hard to reach your goals. Also, I don’t know what her goal is going to be – she continues to grow – but I want to ensure that I am giving her access to the right learning and the right mindset. And I hope that she knows that were always here to support her, whatever path she chooses to follow.
16. What are your future plans?
I hope to wake up every day and move forward. I have dreams to create more music, collaborate with more artists, build SaPa into the global organisation it deserves to be and to continue being a cat and human mom. I don’t know exactly where the future will take me, but as long as it’s forward, I’m ok!